I purposely waited a week to write this post. My thoughts and perception of my experiences at the Playin’ Possum 50 have changed dramatically over the last week. At one point during the race, I had decided that I was never running again. A week later, I can’t wait for my next race.
Training for the Possum started back in January when I decided to get off my lazy ass from holiday hiatus. In the middle of my training, I ran the Seamus O’Possum 30k and the Glass City Marathon. Training for the Possum 50k included numerous back to back long training runs, 6 runs over 18 miles, 4 runs over 20 miles with no rest week ends until taper.
Running a marathon as part of my training may have burned me out a bit. My last 20 mile training run after the GCM was a train wreck (for a variety of reasons which I will not document in this story). A big part of my problem may have been not splitting up my long runs. I also didn’t spend as much time at the gym as I should have and crammed core workouts in the last few weeks.
The thought of an ultra-marathon didn’t worry me much through training, it was very exciting to me and I loved to talk about it. But it hit me hard in my last week of taper. I still have no idea why I was so anxious about the event. There was nothing specific I was scared of, just generally nervous.
The morning of the race, I did all my normal preparations – packed my bag, drank some coffee, smashed a bowl of cereal, and put on my old faded black bandana. At this point my nerves had subsided a bit and I was ready to get after it. Angie, Kate, and Stuart picked me up I enjoyed a highly entertaining car ride to Delaware State Park.
I calmed down even more at the starting line. It was great to see Keri, Joan, and Andrea out there to support us and volunteer at the aid stations. As I stood around listening to the directors, Chad and Mark, speak before the race I was very relaxed. The weather looked to be perfect, only a 30% chance of rain and 55(ish) degrees.
“OK guys, GO!” and the pack of 150 or so runners makes there way out and on the course. Against the Team Possum motto, we ironically took off “Avoiding the Road” by running down a road to get to our first trail.
Like all my races, I started out feeling great. For the first few miles, I hung in the back of the pack with Stuart, Kate, Amanda, Heather, and Michelle to get warmed up. I debated staying with the crew, but I like to run my own race, so I trotted ahead.
My goal was to maintain a solid 11 minute mile pace through the course of the race. I figured I would start there, peak at a 10 minute mile and then finish around a 12 minute mile. My goals for the race were to come in under 6 hours, with a BHAG of 5:30. Early on, the weather seemed like it would cooperate and this might be very doable. Course conditions seemed favorable and I was feeling great!
Then the rain started about mile 9. The air temperature dropped and the rain quickly mixed with hail. Tiny balls of ice smacking me in the head and ears. Fortunately, through this I was able to maintain my pace and everything seemed good. I was still feeling strong for the most part.
Even once the hail stopped, the cold rain continued for a while. The trail conditions started to get slick and I was using a lot of core muscles to keep from slipping down soaked hills and mud. My spirits were still high… until the first water crossing.
Watching runners in front of me cross this belly deep water crossing made me a bit nervous. Almost every runner I watched cross in front of me fell in the middle and swam out to the end. Turns out there was an unexpected sink hole in the middle of this crossing. Not that it mattered much, I was still drenched from the rain. I made my way into the giant puddle, finding the sink hole like everyone else…
After the stream crossing, was an immediately muddy up-hill. This may be where my bad attitude started to kick in, but I did my best to suppress it and moved on – still maintaining a solid 11 minute pace.
The next leg of the race was to run down the “Dam Wall” – a Possum’s nightmare. A 5 mile, seemingly never ending stretch along the levy wall. Fortunately, the course offered a loop around the dam trails to breakup the normally long trek. This definitely helped. As the rain went away temperatures started to slowly rise, so did my spirits. Eventually my clothes even dried.
As I made my way to mile 20 and the end of the “Dam Wall,” I was starting to hit my own personal wall. This is where I knew I was going to have to start occasionally walking to finish this out, earlier than I had planned for. A course change required runners to run along the side of US 23 on a muddy slopped hill. This was about impossible to keep balance on and I believe it is where I messed up my knee. This made the run back into the final stretch very difficult.
Realizing I was going to need some support to finish this out, I was wondering how far back Stuart and crew were. I hadn’t seen then since the beginning of the race. I had no idea how far they were behind me. At this point, I even considered stopping and waiting for them, but I quickly realized just how bad that would have been. I would have definitely cramped up and never finished. So I hobbled on and started befriending other runners on the course.
Making my way back around the beach area, it dawned on me that my family was going to be at the aid station around mile 23. At this point I was really beat up and was ready for the race to end. I really didn’t want Zoe to see me like this. I was a mess.
In a futile attempt to save energy, my walks between runs got longer. I wanted to save enough energy to come in strong to see my family. My knee was throbbing and I realized I was going to have to make another pass through that water crossing. Spirits fell again as did the temperature and more rain.
Around this point, I started chatting with another runner, Mike, who I had been introduced to before the race. His company was responsible for motivating me and keeping moving through the hardest parts of the race. I was crashing hard.
As I made it back to the water crossing, some other runners were there trying to find a better place to cross. The water had risen from the first pass. Through some thorns and brush, we finally found a reasonable (still arguably on course) place to cross and saved another soaking cold water bath.
Next thing I know, we are coming up to the aid station and where my family would be waiting. I tried to come in strong, but I was destroyed. I grabbed my helping of Chips Ahoy, filled up my water bottle, and made my way over to the family. I think I looked like hell. I have no idea what we talked about, but I know I was there for a few minutes.
I made my way back out from the aid station and down to the Mink Trail. My hope at this point was that 50k (31 miles) really mean 50k. This is where the math started running through my head and it became clear that there were still more miles to go that I had planned for. Mike told me to stop trying to do the math, but I couldn’t help it. The “mental” portion of the race was starting to kick in and I was failing to keep my head in the game.
Around the 27th mile, I realized I had exceeded my longest run ever. Although there was a burst of excitement, I celebrated by walking and slowing my pace to even more of a crawl. Mike pulled away as my walk breaks started getting longer.
Then the sky opened up again. More rain. More hail. Bigger hail. All I could think was “Screw this. I am going home. I am never running again.” The reality at this point was that “going home” meant finishing the race. There really wasn’t another option.
As I hit the 29th mile, I was destroyed. I befriended another runner who was nursing an injury (I am sure told me her name, but I really can’t remember it or anything we talked about) and we chatted for a mile and a half into the final aid station. These miles were a very slow walk. At this point I was “definitely never running another long run again.”
As the hail stopped and rain slowed, I finally saw Stuart and crew making there way into the last out and back. They were roughly 3 miles behind me. It was great to see them. High fives all around gave a minor boost.
At the final aid station, Keri “went all Mom” and took good care of me. Filled my water bottle and fed me PB&J sandwiches with some Chips Ahoy. A meal of champions. While I sat around whining that this 31 miles was clearly 33 miles, I watched time tick by. Kerri and some other folks at the aid station were trying to provide me some encouragement.
3 miles to go. 3 miles out of 33 shouldn’t have been so bad. However, at this point a 5k seemed like an eternity. But it was time to press on. 1 miles of trails, and 2 miles along the road to make it to the finish! I trotted on, and picked up my pace.
I followed another runner out from the trails. Drafting her and keeping an 11 minute pace helped me finish stronger. At the final bend I took a quick break. I needed it or I would have been walking through the finish line. Then there was people again. Not runners, but people cheering. The finish line was close. Time to finish strong.
I made my way around the final bend and into the finishing area. This is the part of the race where my chest closes up, I try not to get all emotional, and just make it across the finish line. There were signs along the finish congratulating all of the first time ultra runners. Fortunately, I didn’t see mine or I would have broke down with emotion before crossing the finish.
Strolling through the finish line was incredible (although I don’t think I realized it at the time). Full of emotion, I accepted hand shakes and my horseshoe medal from Chad and Mark, then made my way over to my family. My daughter made some jokes about me being smelly and she didn’t want to hug me. So I pulled her and the wife in for a tight hug and got all emotional. Then the only thing on my mind was getting these damn shoes off and putting on some flip flops.
It really didn’t sink in for a bit that I had just finished a 50k. I was an ultrarunner. Good enough, guess I can quit running. I was destroyed – physically and mentally. Broken down.
My first ultra-marathon finish included 3 downpours, 2 bouts of hail, slippery trail conditions, 2 extra miles than planned, 1 water hole, and a dozen Chips Ahoy in 7 hours, 3 minutes. One hell of a tough day. But I finished it.
Now right after a marathon, I know the normal behavior is to say you are never running another marathon and 4 hours later you are signing up for your next race. Promptly after finishing the race, I was surely never running anything over 20 miles again. There was a point where I even considered selling my bib for the Dopey Challenge at Disney World…
It took about 4 days to get over it. I think once I was able to bend my busted up left knee again, I was starting to feel better about it all. I will definitely be running many more races in my future.
Part of what brought me back to reality was finally recognizing the accomplishment. At first I was questioning why I run at all and why I decided to run a 50k. It was hard. It was the absolutely hardest thing I have ever done. But I did it. I challenged myself, I trained, and I completed it. That is why I ran a 50k.
It took days of thought and support from Team Possum community to realize this accomplishment. Seeing over a thousand pictures come into the Facebook page and all the words of encouragement was amazing. It was a really great event, put on by incredible people, for a ton of awesome runners.
And after a week of reflection – I cannot wait for my next ultra run or for next year’s Playin’ Possum 50k.